Photography made its entry into the arena of the fine arts as a kind of substitute for painting, yet in the course of its long history it has annexed itself to a broad spectrum of interests ranging from social reportage and historical documentary to esoteric aestheticism and pure abstraction. Sooner or later, however, most professional photographers settle on a single focus of interest, as Ansel Adams did, for example, with his landscape pictures, and as Henri Cartier-Bresson did with his “decisive moment” aesthetic.
This was not the practice of Bill Brandt (1904-1983), who’s often been called England’s greatest modern photographer and whose centenary is being celebrated with an exhibition at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York. Brandt, who was born in Germany and launched his career in Paris in 1929 as a studio assistant to Man Ray-one of the stars of the then-regnant Surrealist movement-brought a remarkable versatility to his photographic endeavors.
In the 1930’s, Brandt was mainly occupied with documenting class differences in England during the Depression; hence his first book, The English at Home (1936). Next, taking his cue from his close friend, the French photographer Brassaï-whose Paris de Nuit (1932) explored the darker side of Parisian nightlife-Brandt produced a similar documentary in A Night in London (1938), a book that established his reputation as a photojournalist and opened the way for lucrative assignments in Picture Post, The Weekly Illustrated and other mainstream, mass-circulation publications.
Brandt was very quick, however, to respond to the profound social changes that World War II and its aftermath brought to the English scene. For his generation, certainly, nothing about postwar London could equal the drama and terror of the Blitz, and he emerged from the horrific experience with a radically altered view of his own vocation-a view that for the first time brought his work into close alignment with the avant-garde initiatives of European painters and sculptors.
It’s one of the curiosities of Brandt’s career that though he began as Man Ray’s assistant in the 1920’s, it wasn’t until the postwar period that Surrealist interests came to play a major role in his photographic production. It was then that Brandt effectively abandoned the documentary style in favor of the more subjective, more imaginative aesthetic that led to his concentration on the female nude as his principal theme-and it’s to these pictures that the current exhibition, The Nude: A Centenary Exhibition, is devoted.
Distortion governs every aspect of Brandt’s nudes, beginning with the camera angles employed and ending with the manipulation of the subject’s arms, legs, feet, fingers and head into contorted poses that bear a closer resemblance to the kind of objects we observe in Surrealist painting and sculpture that to anything we encounter in real life.
As a consequence of this radical manipulation of the figure, these photographs seem at times more like studies of sculptural form than depictions of the human body: They remind us of certain aspects of the sculpture of Brancusi and Arp and Henry Moore, as well as the paintings of Yves Tanguy. Yet in fact they resemble nothing but themselves, and once the viewer has adjusted to Brandt’s formal vocabulary, the pictures come to have a poetic quality that’s irresistible. Knees, arms, even fingers and toes acquire a shocking aesthetic interest. Moreover, Brandt’s graphic genius brought to black-and-white photography some of the blackest blacks to be seen anywhere in the history of the medium.
Admirers of Brandt’s earlier documentary photographs can be forgiven if they do find The Nudes somewhat shocking, for the latter certainly violate without apology the ethic as well as the aesthetic of documentary photography. For this viewer, no apology is required: I count The Nudes, all of which date from the late 1940’s to the late 1950’s, to be Bill Brandt’s greatest work. No one with an interest in photography should miss seeing this exhibition.
The Nude: A Centenary Exhibition remains on view at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, through Jan. 8, 2005.